About the Book
What if the life you have always known is taken from you in an instant? What would you do to get it back?
Twins Jeanie and Julius have always been different from other people. At 51 years old, they still live with their mother, Dot, in rural isolation and poverty. Their rented cottage is simultaneously their armour against the world and their sanctuary. Inside its walls they make music, in its garden they grow (and sometimes kill) everything they need for sustenance.
But when Dot dies suddenly, threats to their livelihood start raining down. At risk of losing everything, Jeanie and her brother must fight to survive in an increasingly dangerous world as their mother’s secrets unfold, putting everything they thought they knew about their lives at stake.
This is a thrilling novel of resilience and hope, of love and survival, that explores with dazzling emotional power how the truths closest to us are often hardest to see.
Format: Hardcover (289 pages) Publisher: Fig Tree
Publication date: 25th March 2021 Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Literary Fiction
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I read Bitter Orange back in 2019 and described it as ‘intense, atmospheric, unsettling’. Intense and unsettling are descriptions that could equally be applied to the author’s latest book, if not more so. Just have a close look at the cover and you’ll discover that what initially looks like a collection of flowers and fruits actually conceals a picture of decay.
The sudden death of Dot, their mother, leaves Jeanie and Julius bereft and unsure of what the future holds for them, living as they do on the margins of society. Fairly quickly they discover that their mother was not quite the person they thought she was as secret after secret comes to the surface. That knowledge forces them, especially Jeanie, to reconsider the people they thought they were as well, to rewrite their own history.
I liked the perceptive way the book dealt with bereavement, and how the awareness of the absence of a person can strike without warning. At one point, while Julius and Jeanie are playing music as a duo rather than a trio as they formerly would have, Jeanie hears their mother’s banjo ‘like a vacancy in the music; the sparring and blending between the three instruments is missing, her voice absent.’ Jeanie wonders if this is how loss happens – ‘eventually after every activity has been carried out once without Dot’s presence – the potting on of tomatoes, the making of a rabbit pie, the playing of each song, Jeanie will no longer notice her mother is gone.’
The book is a poignant picture of two vulnerable people lurching from one crisis, one disappointment, to another and ill-equipped to cope with the modern world. They live on the edge of a village with an infrequent bus service, where the telephone box has been converted into a library and the delicatessen stocks foodstuffs that Jeanie and Julius could never afford. It was heartbreaking to witness Jeanie in the local store counting out her pennies in order to decide if she can buy either toilet rolls or shampoo, or forced to eat condensed soup from the can for want of anything else.
For me, the book was really Jeanie’s story. Although it was clear to see the bond between brother and sister, I felt Julius rather faded into the background and that I didn’t know him in quite the way I did Jeanie; as if, although always present, he was somehow remote. I may not have been completely convinced by the motivation of the person who carries out the dramatic event that takes place towards the end of the book but I could certainly believe in Jeanie’s raw grief at its consequences. Prepare to have this book put you through the emotional wringer but, at the same time, leave you believing there is always hope that tomorrow will be a better day.
Unsettled Ground is book 16 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021.
In three words: Intense, perceptive, poignant
Try something similar: Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik
About the Author
Claire Fuller was born in Oxfordshire, England, in 1967. She gained a degree in sculpture from Winchester School of Art, but went on to have a long career in marketing and didn’t start writing until she was forty. She has written three previous novels: Our Endless Numbered Days, which won the Desmond Elliott Prize, Swimming Lessons, which was shortlisted for the RSL Encore Award, and Bitter Orange. Her most recent novel, Unsettled Ground, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021. She has an MA in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of Winchester and lives in Hampshire with her husband.